Boconnoc - one thousand years of history

Saturday 22nd September 2018

The large and beautiful Boconnoc estate is always a topic of interest in Lerryn – not least because several local people live there. So when the WI, as always, opened its doors to all comers to hear the talk after its monthly meeting, nobody was surprised that an unusually large number of people turned up to hear what speaker Pat Ward could tell them about it.

Pat’s summary of the life and times of the Boconnoc Estate began with quotations from historian A. L. Rouse, setting the house in the context of the Civil War.

However, the estate goes much further back than that, Pat assured us. It features in the Domesday Book as having “land for eight ploughs”, which would have meant about 400 acres, but it existed well before the Conquest, and possibly before the Saxons; the Celtic cross above the parish church which forms part of the estate is eighth century, and the church itself was rededicated in 1321, so the original dedication must have been very much earlier.  Bronze Age barrows nearby indicate occupation 3000 years ago.

Despite the calm and beauty of its current ambience, the estate has lived through ‘interesting times’.

An early line of ownership was disrupted by Henry the Eighth, who executed Henry Courtenay, the owner. The property passed to the Duchy and thence to John Russell and his descendants.

In 1579, Frances Russell sold it off to the Mohun family, who owned it at the time when Charles the First spent a night there in hiding from the Roundheads. The Mohuns were still there when Charles the Second stayed there – his name is on a fishing licence granted him at the time – while he was in process of hunting down and killing every man whose name was on his father’s death warrant.

The last Mohun to own the estate was Charles, allegedly ‘the greatest bully of the age’, who was killed in a duel. The man he was fighting also died, and the estate passed to Mohun’s wife, who sold it to Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt in exchange for the famous Pitt Diamond. Boconnoc then remained for several generations in the hands of the Pitt dynasty – which included William Pitt the Elder, the original ‘Earl of Chatham’.

The last of the Pitts, the second Lord Camelford, known as ‘the half mad lord’, was killed in a duel and his sister, who inherited Boconnoc, preferred to remain on her own estates in Berkshire, so she left the property to George Matthew Fortescue, the first Fortescue at Boconnoc.

The estate passed in 1967 to John Desmond Fortescue, but by then the house was barely recognizable. American troops who had occupied the building as an ammunition dump during the Second World War had completely stripped it when they left. Water had entered through holes in the roof, rotting the wood and destroying much of the elaborate plasterwork.

Anthony Desmond Grenville Fortescue, in 1995, inherited a ruin.

 He and his wife together then spent more than 12 years and a lot of money – all of it their own – on restoring the house. Anthony was by profession a furniture restorer and well aware of the standards to be aimed for, but he also knew the practical and financial challenges they faced.

He was determined that their commitment to the house should not damage the viability of the estate, a going concern on which many other people’s homes and livelihoods depended. Although the house was beautifully restored, it was always clear that it would have to earn its keep. One of the lovely ground-floor rooms is fully furnished as a family drawing room, but the rest of the rooms have to be adaptable to the various functions required of them by hirers. These include film and television companies as well as commercial concerns and wedding parties.

Despite these pressures, the integrity of the estate remains. The 100 fallow deer form the largest herd in the country – and the cricket club still plays in the middle of the deer park, as it has done for 160 years; the gardens first designed in the eighteenth century by Thomas Pitt the Fourth, the first Lord Camelford, still delight, and the managed woodlands contain some of the oldest trees in the county.

As they have done for many hundreds of years, the house, church and stableyard once again stand together, fronted by gardens and ringed by woodland, a tribute to the vision and determination of the late Anthony Fortescue.

Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

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